Solving Communication Problems on Your Remote Team

Communication is one of the first-order problems of distributed work. Everyone has heard of it and points to it at the top of the scoreboard of issues with remote work arrangements; even those who have never tried working in this way fear drifting out of touch with their team.

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If we are honest, we all know that it isn’t as if communication within a traditional office is automatically wonderful and efficient. Perhaps we are just used to having constant status meetings and project managers who wander around “syncing up” with workers. A co-located team has these built-in compensation mechanisms, and a remote team doesn’t.

Without the arguably poor and crude move of “get everybody in a room,” remote teams are left to develop new methods to stay in touch and coordinate work. As a manager and individual contributor, there are methods that can make a distributed team even more effective than a large team working within smell-distance of each other. Our thinking just needs to change, and our first change is to move away from transient verbal communication and start writing it down.

Sync vs. Async Communication

Before we do that, we need to understand why it is important to write stuff down. A co-located team has synchronous time – time in which you can gather everyone, stop them from working, to all focus on the same thing – in surplus. You can easily coordinate schedules and “grab people” for quick chats. A manager can walk around spreading a message for each person to help people coordinate, and there is a general expectation that people show up for any meeting that is called. I won’t go into why meetings might be an inefficient way to coordinate work, but I’ll take one stab at it: have you ever been in a meeting in which it wasn’t a heated discussion? If so, you have been to an inefficient meeting.

A remote team does not work like this; these teams trend more towards Results Only Work Environments (R.O.W.E), and additionally might have workers from different time zones. This means that synchronous time is rarer and must be used with extreme care. Synchronous time should be used for the much rarer situations where real-time collaboration is actually needed, and the rest of work should be coordinated online asynchronously.

The ideal mix for remote work is situational, but intense collaboration followed by large blocks of time for concentrated, uninterrupted work is a worthy goal in most configurations. Writing is the simplest method to allow for archiving the decision-making, status, and issues with work for async coordination.

Write it Down or Forget It

When you work in the same building you might do some documentation for your future self, or for training other people – outside of email you probably don’t do a lot of “current events” style writing. But a single source of truth for current status information, project documentation, and work items as they progress through whatever process you have in place is required for a remote team.

To see the difference let’s imagine that we awake for our work day and half of our team has already had the majority of their work day. We can’t have a daily standup meeting where everyone gathers together during preferred work hours, so I need to read and respond to what happened on the project while I wasn’t working, and later my coworkers need to read and respond to what I’m planning on doing for the day and how it goes. I’m essentially journaling my day and making clear notes on obstacles, opinions, or solutions that I’m coming up with. The manner in which you do this might need to change based on what type of work you do, but at a minimum, it should include the following:

  • What did you do yesterday?
  • What do you plan to do today?
  • What obstacles are blocking you?

This information can be tracked in a tool like Basecamp or iDoneThis, and it provides great information to multiple audiences:

  • Coworkers can make sure that you aren’t planning on doing the same thing they are (or have done it already!)
  • Managers can help resolve obstacles, and notice trends in the difference between what their people plan to do versus actually do over time.

Single Source of Truth for Task Status

In addition to this, you need to ramp up your documentation of actual work status. Whatever ticketing system you use to manage work needs to be current every day, every hour, every minute. This replaces some of the status ceremonies that you see in a co-located team.

If probably have one of these systems already but update it at only a high level. It might be a work-tracking system like GitHub issues, Asana, Todoist, Workflowy, your custom support system, or your CRM or (what feels like literally) thousands of other options. A meaningful thought experiment to see if you are documenting in enough detail is simply how well your paper trail prevents people from interrupting to ask about how work is going. “It’s going well, I wrote it all down already” should be your answer.

Learn to Write

All of these methods mean that you might need to level-up your skills with the written word. Your bubbling personality will have to stay on hold for a bit (and saved for video chats discussed below) while you work on communicating clearly your ideas, feedback, and objections clearly and concisely.

The 5-minute way to improve your writing:

  • Read more clear, concise language. Trade magazines are a good start,  and newspapers also have a gift for saying much with little space.
  • Before you send something over a page, see if you can decrease its size by 20%. You will be surprised by how often this leads to clearer thinking and more impactful writing.
  • Practice: There are quality classes that you can take online, such as Gotham Writers Business Writing, but re-reading everything you write can help. From comments to emails,  see how well you get your point into others heads – is there confusion or follow-up?

Time to Sync: Video and Chat

Even if you write everything down as you work, there will always be times when you need to coordinate in real-time to make a decision or clarify an issue. Real-time coordination is typically required at the beginning of projects: “What are we going to work on?” and end: “Hey guys why isn’t it working?”

The tools for real-time collaboration have improved considerably in the last few years. Audio-only conference calls between people sitting in offices from fifteen-pound desk phones feel ancient now – we look each other in the eyes on video chat from our phones in airports and coffee shops across thousands of miles. To improve communication for conference calls, I’d recommend using video tools such as Skype, Hangouts, Slack video, or Zoom and encourage people to turn on their cameras and require single-tasking in the meeting. Although you do need to allow for some flexibility with personal space for camera usage, it is a professional requirement that people pay attention during these rare real-time sessions.

But before we ask everyone to get camera-ready we have another tool that we can use for real-time discussion: chat systems. Our options here are also powerful and growing. Slack, Hipchat, Google Chat, there are many options here. Defining what tool your organization uses is less important than how it uses it: if you use a tool like Slack to discuss work items in an agendaless manner then you are just creating a way to interrupt everyone in your company.

There are two good reasons to use real-time chat:

  1. To discuss non-work items in an opt-in way: create a room for people to discuss drones, or dogs, or dance moves. Nobody is required to participate, and it is used to build rapport among coworkers.
  2. To discuss specific items or emergency events: a support channel with a small crowd makes sense, a group dedicated to figuring out what to work on next between two options makes sense. A general channel with everyone in the company talking about the weather does not.

Playback and Rephrase

Regardless of which communicate method or tool you are using, when you communicate you must make sure the message gets to the right person. Asking “What did you hear?” is a way to do this, and when you get an assignment, play it back in advance to make sure you understand it before going off and getting started. This can be done in writing or over video, and including this acknowledgment step can drastically improve your success rate.

For collaborative meetings, rotate people around for note-taking to allow for people to practice being the listener and the person who plays items back. Conclude meetings and online discussions with simple summary statements that are acknowledged and committed to.

With these simple steps, you can influence and improve your team communication, and if you do it well, you can even be more in step than if you were working in the same building. One of the greatest ways to test the health of a remote team is to get them in the same building and see if they shift the way that they work or not; many times you find that they keep working as they did before – getting together for quick heated discussions, and then get back to work – writing it all down as they go.